Thirteen Days with John C
She had almost walked straight past it. For the last hundred yards, Miranda had been walking with a kind of absent-minded determination, half wondering what to cook that night. She had run out of potatoes.
It was not as if she was diverted by much on this route any more. Every night after she returned home from work, while Frank sat glued to yet another “unmissable” football match (Croatia vs some African country tonight), she would put on her trainers and walk three-quarters of a mile along the footpath that ran alongside the common. It stopped her niggling at Frank, while showing him that she did have a life without him. When he looked up from the television, that is.
So she had almost ignored the distant ringing sound, subconsciously filing it with the car horns, the sirens, the other background noises of the city. But when it sounded shrilly, close by, she had glanced behind her, and realising there was nobody else around, she had slowed and followed the sound down to the bushes. And there it was, half hiddenin the long grass – a mobile phone.
Miranda Lewis stood and looked down the empty path in front of her, then picked it up; the same model as her own. In the second it took her to register this, the ringing stopped. She was debating whether to leave it somewhere more visible when a chiming chord announced the arrival of a text message. It was from “John C”.
She glanced around her, feeling oddly furtive. Then she reasoned – it could be the owner, asking the finder to return it and, after a brief hesitation, she opened it:
“Where U darling?” it read. “It’s been 2 days!!!” Miranda stared at it, then tucked it into her pocket and began to walk.
Miranda, her best friend Sherry liked to remind her, was once a bit of a fox. If anyone else had emphasised the “once” bit quite as much, Miranda might have been offended, but as Sherry added, 20 years ago, boys had actually genuflected at her feet. Her daughter Andrea smirked when Sherry said this, as if the idea of her mother being remotely attractive to anyone was hilarious. But Sherry went on and on about it because Sherry was outraged by Frank’s lack of appreciation.
Every time Sherry joined her on the walk, she would list Frank’s faults, comparing him with her Richard. Richard got sad if Sherry left a room. Richard organised “us” time every Friday for the two of them. Richard left love notes on her pillow. That’s because you never had kids, you earn more than he does and Richard had an unsuccessful hair weave, Miranda thought, although she never said it.
But this last 18 months, she had begun to hear Sherry’s views with more receptive ears. Because Frank had begun to irritate her. The way he snored. The way he always had to be reminded to empty the kitchen bin, even when it was visibly overflowing. The way he said plaintively,“There’s no milk!” as if the milk fairy had not been, even though she worked just as many hours as he did. The way his hand would snake across her on a Saturday night, as routine as his washing of the car, but with possibly less affection.
Miranda knew she was lucky to have a marriage that had lasted 21 years. She believed there was very little in life that could not be solved by a brisk walk and a dose of fresh air. She had walked a mile and a half every day for the last nine months.
Back in the kitchen, a mug of tea beside her, she had, after the briefest struggle with her conscience, opened the message again.
“Where U darling? It’s been 2 days!!!”
Its awful punctuation and abbreviation were somehow offset by the desperation within. She wondered whether to call John C and explain what had happened, but there was something in the intimacy of the message that made it feel like an intrusion.
The owner’s phone numbers, she thought. I’ll scroll through. But there was nothing, in the list of names. No clue except for John C. It all felt odd. I don’t want to call him, she thought, suddenly. She felt unbalanced, as if someone had intruded into her safe little house, her haven. She would hand the phone in at the police station, she decided, then she registered another icon: Diary. And there it was: tomorrow’s date, with “Call travel agent.” Below: “Hair, Alistair Devonshire 2pm.”
The hairdresser had been easy to find; the name had sounded familiar and as she looked it up in the directory she realised she must have passed it many times. A discreet salon, off the high street. She would ask the receptionist to ask their 2pm booking if she’d lost a phone.
Two things happened that made Miranda falter in her resolve. The first was the fact that, seated on the bus in traffic, she had really very little to do except look at the stored pictures. And there he was, a smiling, dark-haired man, grinning into a mug, his eyes lifted in some intimate moment: John C. She glanced at more messages. Just to see if there were any clues, of course. Nearly all were from him.
“Sorry could not call last night. W in foul mood, think looking for clues. Thought of you all night.”
“Can see you in your dress, my Scarlet Woman. The way it moves against yr skin.”
“Can you get away Thurs? Have told W am at conference. Dreaming of my lips on your skin.” And then a couple more that made Miranda Lewis, a woman who believed there was little in life that could surprise her, thrust the phone into her bag and pray that no one else could see the flaming of her cheeks.
She was standing in the reception area, already regretting her decision to come, when the woman approached her.
“Do you have an appointment?” she said. Her hair, a sleek aubergine colour, stuck up in unlikely tufts.
“No,” said Miranda. “Er … Do you happen to have someone coming in at 2pm?“
“You’re in luck. She cancelled. Kevin can fit you in.” She turned away. “I’ll just get you a gown.”
Miranda was left seated, staring at her own reflection in the mirror; a slightly stunned-looking woman with the beginnings of a double chin and mousy hair that she hadn’t had time to tidy since climbing off the bus. “Hello.” Miranda startled as a young man appeared behind her. “What can I do for you? Just a trim?”
“Oh. Um. Actually, this has been a bit of a mistake. I only meant to…”
At that moment her phone rang and with a muffled apology she rummaged in her bag to get it. She pressed text message and jumped slightly. The phone she had pulled out was not hers.
“Been thinking about last time. You make my blood sing.”
“All right now? I’ve got to be honest, sweetheart. That’s not the best style for you.” He picked up a limp lock of hair.
“Really.” Miranda stared at the message, meant for the very person sitting in this chair. You make my blood sing.
“You want to go with something else? Shall we freshen up your look a bit?”
Miranda hesitated. “Yes.” she said, looking up at the woman in the mirror.
To her knowledge, she had never made Frank’s blood sing. He did occasionally tell her she looked nice, but it always felt like something he felt he should say than something he really meant.
“Shall we go mad, then?” Kevin said, comb raised.
Miranda thought of her daughter, yawning audibly whenever Sherry went on about their teenaged double dates. She thought of Frank, failing to even look up from the television when she returned home from work. “Hi, babe,” he would say, holding up a hand in greeting. A hand. As if she were a dog.
“I tell you what,” said Miranda. “Whatever your two o’clock appointment was going to have, I’ll have.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow. “Ohh… Good choice,” he said, seemingly reappraising her. “This is going to be fun.”
She had not run the footpath that night. She had sat in the kitchen and re-read the messages and then jumped guiltily and glanced towards the living room when the next text arrived. Her heart gave a little lurch when she saw the name. She hesitated, then opened it. “Am worried about U. Too long now. Can bear it (just!) if you don’t want to do this, but need to know U R OK. XXX”
She stared at the message, hearing its loving concern, its attempt at humour. Then she gazed up at her reflection, at the new, shorter cut with the reddish tint that Kevin had pronounced his best work all week.
Perhaps it was the fact that she didn’t look like herself. Perhaps it was because she hated to see anyone suffer, and John C was clearly suffering. Perhaps it was because she had drunk several glasses of wine. But, her fingers trembling slightly, she typed a reply.
“Am ok,” she typed. “Just difficult to talk right now.” Then she added: “X”. She pressed the send button, then sat, her heart thumping, barely breathing until the return message came.
“Thank God. Meet me soon, Scarlet Woman. Am blue without you. X” A little cheesy, but it made her laugh.
After that first evening, it became easier to respond. John C would text her several times a day and she would reply. Sometimes at work, she would find herself thinking about what she would say and her colleagues would remark upon her sudden blush, or her distractedness and make knowing remarks. She would smile and not disabuse them. Why would she, when John C’s next text would arrive not half an hour later, professing his passion, his desperation to see her?
Once she had deliberately left one visible on her desk, knowing that Clare Trevelyan would not be able to stop herself from reading it – or passing on its contents in the smoking room. Good, she thought. Let them wonder. She liked the idea that she could surprise people occasionally. Let them think she was an object of passion.
If, occasionally, it occurred to her that what she was doing was wrong, she buried the thought. It was just a bit of make-believe. John C was happy. Frank was happy. The other woman would probably contact him some other way and then it would stop. She tried not to think about how much she would miss it, picturing herself doing the things he remembered them doing together.
It was almost two weeks when she realised she could no longer put him off. She’d told him that there was a problem with her phone, that she was waiting for a new one, and suggested that until then they only spoke by text. But his messages had become insistent:
“Why not Tues? May not have another chance till next week.”
“The Old Gentlemen. A drink at lunchtime. Please!”
“What U trying to do to me?”
It wasn’t just that. John C had begun to consume her life. Sherry looked at her suspiciously and remarked how good she looked, how Frank must finally be doing something right, in a way that suggested she thought this unlikely. But John C’s messages created an intimacy she had never felt with any other man. They shared the same sense of humour, were able to express even in abbreviated form the most complex and naked of emotions. Unable to tell him the truth, she told him her hopes and secret wishes, her dreams of travel to South America.
“I’ll take U there. I miss yr voice, Scarlet Woman,” he told her.
“I hear yrs in my dreams,” she replied, and blushed at her own audacity.
Finally, she had sent him a message. “The Old Gentlemen. Thursday. 8pm.”
She wasn’t sure why she had done it. Part of her, the old Miranda, knew that this couldn’t continue. That it was a temporary madness. And then there was new Miranda, who while she might never be able to admit this to herself, had started to think of John C as her John. Miranda might not be the phone’s original owner, but John C would have to admit that there had been a connection. That the woman he had spent the last 13 days talking to was someone who stirred him, who made him laugh, who scrambled his thoughts. If nothing else, he had to acknowledge that. Because his messages had changed her, they had made her feel alive again.
Thursday evening found her fussing over her make-up like a teenager on her first date. “Where are you off to?” said Frank, looking up from the television. He seemed a little taken aback, even though she was wearing a long coat. “You look nice.” He scrambled up from the sofa. “I meant to tell you. I like your hair.”
“Oh, that,” she said, blushing slightly. “Drink with Sherry.”
“Wear your blue dress,” John C had said. She had bought one specially; low in front with a kick skirt.
“Have fun,” he said. He turned back to the television, shifting slightly on the sofa as he lifted the remote.
Miranda’s confidence briefly evaporated at the pub. She had nearly turned back twice on the way there and still could not work out what to say if she saw anyone she knew. Plus the pub was not the kind of place where they dressed up, she had realised too late, so she kept her coat on. But then half a glass in, she changed her mind and shrugged it off. John C’s lover would not feel self-conscious drinking alone in a blue dress.
At one point a man came up and offered her a drink. She had startled, and then, realising it was not him, had declined. “I’m waiting for someone,” she said, and enjoyed his regretful look as he walked away.
He was almost 15 minutes late when she picked up her phone. She would text him. She was just starting her message when she looked up to find a woman standing at her table.
“Hello, Scarlet,” she said.
Miranda blinked at her. A youngish, blonde woman, wearing a wool coat. She looked tired, but her eyes were feverish, intense.
“I’m sorry?” she said.
“It’s you, isn’t it? Scarlet Woman? Gosh, I thought you’d be younger.” There was a sneer in her voice. Miranda put down her phone.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I should have introduced myself. I’m Wendy. Wendy Christian. John’s wife?” Miranda’s heart stalled.
“You did know he had one, right?” The woman held up a matching mobile phone. “He mentioned me enough times, I see. Oh no,” her voice lifted theatrically. “Of course you didn’t realise it wasn’t him you’ve been talking to these last two days. I took his phone. It’s me. It was all me.”
“Oh God,” Miranda said quietly. “Look, there’s been – “
“ – a mistake? You bet there has. This woman has been sleeping with my husband,” she announced to the pub in a ringing, slightly tremulous voice. “Now she has decided that this might have been a mistake.” She leant forward over the table. “Actually, Scarlet, or whatever you call yourself, it’s been my mistake, marrying a man who thinks that having a wife and two small children doesn’t mean he can’t keep screwing around.”
Miranda felt the silence of the pub, the collective eyes burning into her. Wendy Christian took in her stricken expression. “You poor fool. Did you think you were the first? Well, Scarlet, you’re actually number four. And that’s just the ones I know about.”
Miranda’s vision had become strangely blurry. She kept waiting for the normal sounds of the pub to resume around her, but the silence, oppressive now, continued. Finally she grabbed her coat and bag and ran past the woman to the door, her cheeks burning, her head down against the accusing stares.
The last thing she heard as the door swung behind her was the sound of a phone ringing.
“That you, babe?” Frank raised a hand as he heard her pass by the doorway of the living room. Miranda was suddenly grateful for the irresistible draw of the television. Her ears rang with the accusations of that embittered wife. Her hands were still trembling.
“You’re back early.”
She took a deep breath, staring at the back of his head over the sofa.
“I decided,” she said, slowly. “That I didn’t really want to go out.”
He glanced behind him. “Brian will be pleased. He doesn’t like Sherry going out, does he? Thinks someone’s going to steal her away from him.”
Miranda stood very still.
“Do I what?”
“Worry that someone will steal me away?” She felt electrified, as if whatever he said would have far greater implications than he knew.
He turned to face her and smiled. “Course. You were a fox, remember?”
“Come here,” he said. “Come and give me a cuddle. It’s the last five minutes of Uruguay versus Cameroon.”
Miranda felt the warmth of his hand on hers and relaxed. “Two minutes,” she said. “There’s something I have to do first.”
In the kitchen, she reached for the mobile phone. Her fingers, this time, were assured.
“Dear John C,” she wrote. “A ring on the finger is worth two on the phone. You’d do well to learn this.” She paused, then added: “Foxy”. She sent this, then turned off the phone, stuffing it deep into the kitchen bin. Then she walked back into the living room, back to where her husband was waiting.